Rachel Stagg

IDC 201-201
March 5, 2014
Book Reflection- Friedman and Mandelbaum

That Used To Be Us: How America fell behind in the World it invented
and how we can come back

America was once the greatest nation in the world; leading the globe in all industries and
forcing other nations to follow suit. But something changed around the time of the Cold War; we
became a relaxed nation that felt at ease. Now countries like China, Singapore, and South Korea
have stepped up their game a substantial amount, threatening America in ways it has never been
threatened before. They rose to the challenge by reinventing their education, their industry, and
their technology while we are left here thinking “that used to be us.” According to Friedman and
Mandelbaum, there are four challenges that Americans need to face in order to once again see
America thrive as the top nation in a changing world. These four great challenges are
globalization, the IT revolution, the national debt and annual deficits this country has racked up,
and the rising rates of energy consumption. “These four challenges, and how we meet them, will
define America’s future.” The big four challenges that need to be overcome are not alone; there
is one other large challenge that will help solve the others for this nation: education. Without a
change in education, the current and future young generations will not be able to make the
changes necessary to the Big Four categories that Friedman and Mandelbaum highlight.
The first challenge we need to face is the ever-changing and expanding globalization.
Globalization is essentially “the free movement of people, goods, services and capital across
national borders.” There was great success with this in the Western world and soon the Eastern
world followed suit; America did not fully understand how large globalization would soon
become. Due to this recent globalization expansion, America is feeling a “a sense of deja vu”
from the 80’s when we faced a similar problem with Japan. This blast from the past is different
this time around though; not only do we face problems from China, but also India, Switzerland,
Singapore and Brazil. These are all countries that have integrated technology and free markets
and are developing more quickly and thoroughly than the U.S. ever predicted. Not only is this
globalization affecting our economy, it is also affecting every job that Americans hold, because
American doctors, scientists, and IT professionals are being replaced by Indians, Asians, and
Rachel Stagg
IDC 201-201
March 5, 2014
Book Reflection- Friedman and Mandelbaum

even Europeans. These other countries have the education, the innovation and the drive that
many younger Americans today do not. Education and hard work can fix this gap between our
nation and the nations that we are in competition with.
The second tough challenge that America faces is the great IT revolution that has been
occurring for the past decade. Technology grows and spreads at such an astounding rate that it’s
very difficult to keep up, especially for the youngest and oldest generations. Friedman and
Mandelbaum discuss this technology revolution in Flat World 1.0 and Flat World 2.0; after 2000,
people started realizing that they could connect with people across the world, “whether it was
Tom’s mom and her new online bridge partner in Siberia or the local gas station owner
discovering through the internet a new supplier of cheaper tires in Panama.” In the leap from
“Flat World 1.0” to “Flat World 2.0,” the amount of people globally that could access internet
and cell phones increased substantially. Now, nearly all first world countries are in the same
playing field when it comes to the IT revolution; America no longer has the advantage of being
the first to possess all the new, shiny toys. India, China, and many other Asian countries are
getting the jump on us in regards to technology. A disadvantage for Americans from this IT
revolution is that old jobs are being eliminated and new ones being created; all of which require
more education, much of it in IT information. This is where a major challenge comes back
around education. The only way for an Average Joe from America to compete with an
intellectual man from India or China coveting his job is to go out and get more education.
Average Joe will need to bring his “extra” to the table, and fight for his job. Education in
technology is a growing field in America, and something we severely need in the coming years.
With debt in America forever growing larger, we face a third large challenge, and this is
paying back the money we owe and getting our annual deficits under control. America is a nation
of borrowers: we borrow too much money from nations that we cannot begin to pay back at this
time. We are known for “our habit of not raising enough money through taxation to pay for what
the federal government spends, and then borrowing to bridge the gap.” We need to do something
about this as soon as possible because Medicare and Medicaid are only going to make this worse
in the coming years due to all of the baby boomers receiving entitlement money. Another place
that much of our money goes to is campaign funds: technological advances in polling, television
Rachel Stagg
IDC 201-201
March 5, 2014
Book Reflection- Friedman and Mandelbaum

advertisements, etc. The cost of running a campaign went from $75 million combined in 1974, to
$879 million in 2010. So how can we fix the problem of our astronomical national debt? Well it
is going to take many different things to fix the large problem, but one that can definitely help is
educating our younger generations. I will be the first to admit that I do not know much at all
about economics; many other teens and younger adults are the same way and this needs to be
fixed. Education about economics is the first step to reversing our debt. America needs
established leaders who can change the debt, and there are people in high places now trying to
accomplish this. But these leaders will eventually need someone to replace them, which is why
economics education is very important.
The last challenge of the Big Four is the growing release of fossil fuels due to increased
energy consumption demands. This is in part due to the global expansion of economies around
the world and the need for more energy to provide for these nations. Friedman and Mandelbaum
identify this as one of the major problems that needs to be addressed as a whole, consolidated
country. Only together can we address this problem; “we need a grand bargain on energy
between environmentalists and the oil and gas industries.” Slowly, we need to adapt to changes
that allow for safer extractions of natural gas, and finding remote locations to drill for oil
independently of other countries. After we reach this idea of a “happy medium,” we need to start
“gradually but steadily shifting our economy to cleaner energy systems- be they wind, solar,
wave or natural gas- and a more efficient use of resources.” This shift in energy uses will
eventually happen regardless of which nation is the first to make the big changes necessary for
our planet. Friedman and Mandelbaum are vehement that America should be the first to make
this change, and to lead with the rest of the world standing behind us.
Each of these four challenges can be faced- it is not an impossible feat; however, it will
need two major boosters to get done in my opinion. The first is a nation that collectively comes
together and realizes that it has faults that need to be addressed. Friedman and Mandelbaum are
ready to acknowledge the complacency and cockiness that Americans have been feeling since
the end of the Cold War, the rest of us just need to be that ready too. The second booster we need
is a remodel of our education system: we have fallen in PISA scores compared to other nations
from where we used to be. At this point, we are 17
in the world in reading, 23
in science, and
Rachel Stagg
IDC 201-201
March 5, 2014
Book Reflection- Friedman and Mandelbaum

a meek 31
in mathematics. That is sad; education needs to be our top priority, because that is
how we will dig ourselves out of the hole we’re in, and how we will rise to meet the big four
challenges Friedman and Mandelbaum laid out for us. There are several influential people and
programs that have started to work for our education both in the past and now. For example,
“Teach For America (TFA)” created by Wendy Kopp. TFA brings graduate students from across
the nation, gives them a crash course in teaching, and throws them in one of the most poverty-
stricken areas of the country to teach. In her mind, this would spark outrage in these teachers
young minds of the injustice many students face, and these young teachers will be the change our
country needs. Teach For America is a program that started with about 2,500 applicants the first
year, and has increased substantially to about 50,000 applicants in the years since. Kopp was
quoted saying that TFA would create “a generation of new leaders who would work together for
the rest of their lives to affect the fundamental changes needed to truly solve America’s
education problem.” So far, she has been right. It is people like this that give Friedman and
Mandelbaum hope that as a nation, we can overcome our challenges.
Another influential program was the Network for Teaching Entrepreneurship (NFTE)
created by Steve Mariotti. This program helped people from a low socioeconomic status “unlock
their potential for entrepreneurial creativity by teaching them to start their own business.” This
program taught an important life lesson in innovation and creation while keeping children in
school to continue their education. This program engages the students who may not be
intellectual geniuses in math or science, but still have a passion for learning to create something
that is their own, and run a business. These kids will be just as influential in bringing America
back as the kids with extreme book smarts. Steve Jobs agreed with this notion of creativity,
expression and innovation as well, and he built one of the most profitable and well-known
companies in the world, all as a high school dropout. Our lack of action in globalization and the
IT revolution may have set us back some, but educating these young minds with successful
programs in school, business, and creativity will help refuel America and get us back to where
we used to be.
What Friedman and Mandelbaum wrote is the harsh truth that many Americans did not
want to face, but it’s time that it is discussed. As they wrote in the last section of this book, “If
Rachel Stagg
IDC 201-201
March 5, 2014
Book Reflection- Friedman and Mandelbaum

we can’t even have an ‘adult’ conversation, how will we fulfill the promise of and our obligation
to the Preamble of our constitution- to ‘secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our
posterity’.” This is a great question that Friedman and Mandelbaum posed to conclude their eye-
opening book. As Americans, we can’t fix the problem that hasn’t yet been acknowledged. Both
Thomas Friedman and Michael Mandelbaum still consider themselves to be “frustrated
optimists,” which I find encouraging. Both of these authors are well aware of America’s
“freewheeling spirit,” its diversity, its flexibility, and the knowledge that in the past America has
come together many times to tackle tough problems. They know that we can do it again,
especially with the high stakes this time around. As they say, many Americans know the cost,
and are just “far too dumb to quit,” which is encouraging. An excellent example of those still
willing to do anything and everything for our country are the soldiers that are in Afghanistan in
one of the most dangerous areas in the country on their sixth military tour. That shows amazing
dedication to America, and lets us know that if we all put in the effort and stick together,
American can come back from the devastations we have suffered in the past years. “The spirit of
sacrifice for the nation is not dead in America,” and hopefully it never will be.

Rachel Stagg
IDC 201-201
March 5, 2014
Book Reflection- Friedman and Mandelbaum

Friedman, T. L., & Mandelbaum, M. (2012). That used to be us: How America fell
behind in the world it invented and how we can come back (Picador ed.). New
York: Picador/Farrar, Straus and Giroux.